You Are What You Read: Fiction, Fact, and Not Sure

Dick Staub | Religion News Service | Friday, April 17, 2009

You Are What You Read: Fiction, Fact, and Not Sure

"I once thought pop culture, though superficial, could be useful in triggering conversations about ideas
that matter. Now I'm skeptical that there's much of a bridge between superficial dialogue
and serious fruitful discussion."
~ Dick Staub

 

Someday I'd like to be able to walk into a bookstore and have everything neatly laid out in three sections: "Fiction." "Non-Fiction." And "Not Sure."

James Frey's notorious memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," was revealed to be partly a fictional fabrication and now is sometimes derisively called "A Million Little Lies."

Dan Brown went out of his way to reassure readers that "The DaVinci Code" is reliable by writing what is now referred to as the "fact page."

Because so much of the book is demonstrably not true, Brown eventually issued a statement on his Web site clarifying his "fact page":

"If you read the `FACT' page, you will see it clearly states that the documents, rituals, organization, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist. The `FACT' page makes no statement whatsoever about any of the ancient theories discussed by fictional characters. Interpreting those ideas is left to the reader."

Remember simpler times, when facts were facts and fiction was fiction?

The film version of Brown's prequel, "Angels and Demons," fueled more buzz about Illuminati conspiracy theories, Vatican intrigue and a rehashing of the age-old debate between faith and science.

I hosted a show on "Angels and Demons" (podcast at www.thekindlings.com) with a film critic, a theologian, and faith/science expert. They unanimously agreed that although "Angels and Demons" is a guilty pleasure and an entertaining read, no educated reader could possibly conclude it is a factual, serious depiction of the history of the Illuminati, the Catholic Church or the current state of the faith/science dialogue.

The same is true of "The DaVinci Code." One panelist referred to "The DaVinci Code" and "Angels and Demons" as "Google-books" because they "weave together a series of half-truths, the kind you might find by Googling any of the subjects Brown's books deal with."

Yet the panel was also convinced that though "Angels and Demons" is not factual, it will nonetheless be very influential -- in no small part because of the upcoming A-list film version directed by Ron Howard and staring Tom Hanks.

That's where the discussion got interesting. All three panelists seem to think that movies like this create wonderful opportunities for more serious discussions about faith and science. I'm not so sure.

At one time I might have agreed. I once thought pop culture, though superficial, could be useful in triggering conversations about ideas that matter. Now I'm skeptical that there's much of a bridge between superficial dialogue and serious fruitful discussion.

I wonder about our intellectual appetites. Does a steady diet of junk food produce just an appetite for more junk food, or does it also make us hungry for nutrient-rich healthy foods? Has the widespread consumption of entertaining media resulted in the elimination of an appetite for more intellectually rigorous fare? Compare today's newspaper or periodical with those of three decades ago and you'll notice shorter articles. Read Hollywood scripts and you'll see more special effects and less dialogue.

I also wonder about our ability to recall the original sources for the mix of fact and fiction in our memory bank. Can we even recall where we received the information we possess? Can we distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources? Can we even tell the difference between fact and fiction?

Just because we read it in "The DaVinci Code" doesn't make it so.

Then there is the issue of discernment. Have we lost the ability to assess the polluted information pool from which we draw our referential facts? In an age that is reticent to declare anything factual -- preferring instead to label all things opinion -- how can we possibly believe that dubious source material can produce significant dialogue and intellectual advancement?

In her book, "The Age of American Unreason," Susan Jacoby bemoans the double-headed monster of anti-intellectualism (the attitude that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism ("the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion").

"Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge," The New York Times summarized her argument, "but they also don't think it matters."

Even in the '60's, we still distinguished fact from fiction. Just ask good old Mason Williams, who described a song he wrote as "not a true tale, but who needs truth when it's dull?"


Dick Staub is the author of "The Culturally Savvy Christian" and the host of The Kindlings Muse (www.thekindlings.com). His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.

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